Weekly HomilyArchives

Friday, March 20, 2009

“Jesus said, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’” (John 12:32)

“SOUL-SURFING” – March 29, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Lent
John 12:20-33
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC

So fractured is our world: warring nations each claiming to be in the right; obstreperous political parties each insisting theirs is the correct view; religious groups all claiming love as a first principle while bashing each other. It all seems so broken, hopeless beyond repair. And I suppose it is if our reliance is solely on human effort. It is indeed hopeless unless faith takes us beyond what our senses perceive. Truly is it hope-filled when we believe the words Jesus speaks in the gospel passage we hear today: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” (John 12:32) Yes, though we be frail and broken, God is ever drawing us toward reconciliation, toward peace, toward home. It was the message I wanted so badly to deliver to Gus. I wanted my long-ago student to know that even now God was reaching down gently to bear him home.

Both students of mine in Rochester, NY, three decades ago, Gus’ life-long friend Shaun e-mailed me in mid-February. Reading through Shaun’s anguish at sharing such news, I learned that Gus had end-stage liver cancer with no treatment options seemingly available. “Please help my friend,” begged Shaun. “The doctors can’t do anything, but you can.”

I could see their faces, at least as I remembered them at 17, though both were now 47, married and with children of their own. I could picture vividly the two spirited friends often in trouble at school who sought refuge in what perceived protection they imagined I could provide. Only 13 years older than these two, back in 1978 I relished the gentle game as, in retrospect, I admit to being little more than a kid myself. But the game was over. Gus was dying. “Please help my friend,” begged Shaun. “The doctors can’t do anything, but you can.”

Terrified of the request, many prayers left my lips before I picked up the phone to call Gus. Sure, there’d been some long ago tight spots from which I’d assisted his release, but I couldn’t do it this time. Not now. I couldn’t free him from cancer. God help me! No, God help Gus!

With queasy stomach I dialed the number Shaun had given me. A weak male voice answered. Identifying myself, silence as I heard a deep intake of breath at the other end of the line. Then a huge laugh. “You don’t know how I’ve prayed to be in touch with you. It’s been so long. I remember happy times and laughter. You were a part of my life then.” Choking sobs broke the narrative before he continued. “So many memories are coming back to me. Do you remember the night you took a bunch of us to Buckman’s Dairy on Ridge Rd. and we all ordered ‘The Kitchen Sink?’ It had about 12 scoops of ice cream, all kinds of glop on top and was served in a miniature sink. And we ate it all! You know, that’s one of my happiest memories. I even remember ‘Would You Leave Me Now,’ by Chicago, playing in the background. Do you remember that night?” Some choked tears of my own because I did remember.

On and on we talked in vivid reminiscence. Finally I interrupted, “Gus, tell me about the cancer. What’s going on?” An anguished sigh as he unhappily returned to the present. “Well, it was just diagnosed last spring. Stage 4 liver cancer. I had no idea. Just knocked me over. Since then I’ve been traveling all over the country trying to find someone who can say more than ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ I haven’t had any luck yet.” Gus detailed months of exhaustive journeying for consultations at all the best cancer treatment centers. “No luck anywhere,” he said.

His voice louder now: “Why? That’s my question. Why is this happening to me? The question keeps me awake at night and bothers me all day. Why me?” I have only the stock answers I’ve been tossing the desperate for years. “Gus, you’ll never find an answer to that question this side of heaven. Only God knows why, so you’ll have to wait ‘til heaven for an answer.” A deep sigh and a response: “Yeah, I guess I knew that.” I continue: “I think now's the time to decide what you really want to do with whatever time you have left. Who are the people you want to see? What are the things you want to say to them? These are the really big questions for right now. To leave this earth with as few regrets as possible: that’s the goal. Decide who and what is most important to you and invest your love and your energy there.”

Gus interrupts my mini-sermon. “You’re right! I’ve been asking my dad to help me through this. He died back in 1999, and I still miss him so much. He was a very religious man who did so much for others. A fireman until he retired, then he bought a gas station in a rough part of the city and practically gave gas away to the people who couldn’t pay for it. He was such a good man. He’s watching over me, I know it.”

I interjected, “Yes, ask your Dad for help! He's already made the trip to heaven and is watching over you during this challenging time. Hang onto his love. And know that mine is with you too.” Then, with the promise of prayer and of keeping in close touch, we ended the call. I sat for some time in the quiet dark of my room asking God to show me how to accompany Gus home.

As Lent progresses toward Good Friday, we hear Jesus offering such a consoling promise to those who find life too heavy to bear. “Jesus said, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.’” (John 12:32) While Gus and I continue to reminisce over the phone, I give insistent voice to what has been my silent prayer. “Gus, God is lifting you up even now, this very minute. Heaven isn’t so far away at all. Trust him to bring you home.”

Chuckling quietly, Gus hums a few bars from our ice cream days at Buckman’s Dairy. “If you leave me now…”


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